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Columbus Day: A Tale of Two Worlds

The morning of October 8, 2018 the inhabitants of South Philadelphia woke up to discover that someone had vandalized the entrance to the city’s Italian Immigration Museum. On the institution’s doorsteps, graffitied words denounced anti-Columbus sentiments shared by many Native American rights advocates. As a result, the words “racism,” “genocide,” “rape,” and “slavery” were again painted as the ultimate European legacy in the Americas.

Response from the Italian community in Philadelphia was heartbroken, especially from Italian-Americans living in East Passyunk where the museum is located. The neighborhood is historically the home to the city’s Italian population, and its residents expressed a sense of sadness seeing the institution that seeks to praise and preserve their heritage vandalized.

To be honest, as a person of Hispanic heritage, I found myself tormented by such negative labels attributed to the arrival of my Spanish ancestors to the Americas. An Italian inhabitant of East Passyunk could not do a better job at summarizing such a feeling by saying that the act of vandalism “isn’t about Christopher Columbus. It might be to [the vandals], but to the Italians it’s about celebrating our heritage.”

These and other acts against the celebration of Columbus Day have revealed a complex dichotomy between the approaches that people take when commemorating the holiday. On one hand, there are those who wish to ban any memory of Columbus as they see that his encounter with the Americas only brought upon unspeakable evil to the natives of the continent. On the other hand, there are those of European heritage, especially Italians and Hispanics, who wish to celebrate their cultures, not the man who “discovered” the Americas.

Columbus Day has been a historically popular holiday in the United States. SInce the late 18th century, Americans have appropriated Columbus’s figure as a symbol of distinct “American” identity, of a white settler whose exploration established the Americas as we know it. The arrival of Italian immigrants in the 1800s further encouraged the celebration of the holiday. Columbus’s background was likely Italian, which made sense for Italian immigrants to use the explorer’s figure as a symbol of cultural heritage and unity in response to nativist sentiments and xenophobia against Italians at the time.

Many Americans believed that only those practicing the original 13 colonies’ alleged heritage, that is, Protestantism, should be welcome to the United States. Italians did not “fit” these standards because they were Catholic, so they were discriminated against. But in the image of Columbus the Explorer, they found a symbol of unity and a claim of legitimacy for their inclusion into American society. Italian influence grew, and in 1934 Congress made the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the Americas a federal holiday.

A similar historical process happened in Latin America in the last century. As many of the region’s countries sought to forge an identity, they turned to Columbus as a symbol of heritage much alike to the United States. However, in Latin America this remembrance took a different approach.The holiday came to be named “Race Day” as a symbol of appreciation for the Amerindian and European cultures that make up such countries.  

Today, more awareness in regards to the mistreatment of Native Americans has propagated a strong opposition to the commemoration of Columbus Day in the Americas. However, this is not the first time that there have been attacks against the holiday. In the last century, the KKK opposed any legislation in the United States in favor of Columbus Day and deliberately committed aggressions against Italians and other Catholics when celebrating the holiday.

Arguably, the reasons to oppose the holiday have changed since then. People contend that there is nothing to celebrate about Europe’s arrival to this continent, that its effects are detrimental, especially for the Amerindians.They are not wrong. Yet at the same time, the commemoration of Columbus Day seen from an Italian and Hispanic perspective is a victory against white supremacists. Thus both groups have valid reasons for their stances on Columbus Day. Will there ever be an answer to solving the issues between the two views attributed to this holiday?

While I understand the stigma of Columbus’s anniversary of his arrival to the Americas, I feel that the suppression of its remembrance will take away an opportunity to learn from history.

To learn from the past, we need to accept its mistakes, acknowledge its accomplishments, and avoid repeating history. Any human action has a plethora of reactions that are either good, bad, or somewhere in between. Looking at Columbus Day from a merely opposing perspective is as fallacious as looking from a praising one. We have to understand that Columbus was just a man whose actions contributed to forming the world as we know it today. We cannot change that.

Instead, what we can change is the way we teach and learn from his actions. On one hand, we should raise awareness of the terrors committed by European settlers, the irresponsibilities of cultural and environmental destruction, and the repercussions of pandemic catastrophes. At the same time, we should appreciate the melting pot of not only Europeans and Amerindians, but also that of Africans and Asians, which ultimately set off globalization and gave this continent a unique identity. Most importantly, we should all work together to teach future generations that history is not only black and white, but a lot of gray areas in between.

Perhaps with a more nuanced take, aggressive actions such as the vandalism of Philadelphia’s Italian Immigration Museum will be averted and we will finally have open conversations about what we feel about Columbus and his legacy in the Americas.

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